Political Correctness in Richard Scarry’s Book

1 January 2017

The Appearance of Political Correctness in Children’s Literature: With special regards to Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever Political correctness is one of the most controversial cultural and academic issues of today. Although because of its interdisciplinary nature it can be studied in relation to American English. In this paper the main focus is on the new interdisciplinary studies emerging in the scope of academics, such as multicultural literature; narrowing down to children’s multicultural literature.

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The purpose of this essay is to study the development of political correctness in children’s literature and also to try to explore whether it is a clear cut appearance of the phenomenon, or it is whether a continuing formation of the term. The basic element of this study is Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever (1963, 1991), the differences between the “old” and the somewhat “newer” version. The scope of the exploration ranges across an assortment of topics. For example: how gender roles are illustrated in the 1960’s and in the 1990’s, also there is an explanation on how religious and ethnic groups are presented in the books.

Moreover there is an attempt to compare and contrast different pieces of children’s literature of our time, as well as to have a look at a children’s book published in Great Britain. I do not offer a comprehensive study of political or cultural correctness presented in children’s literature, my aim is more to explore this particular children’s dictionary focusing on several themes. In this paper I would not like to explore the chosen books on a particular study or given viewpoint. I have tried to base the study on personal data research and my own reflection on the book.

Nevertheless I find it important to bring up various terms and critics according to the topic of political correctness. First of all, I would like to explain what does political correctness (PC) generally means and its importance in the context of education and children’s literature. “The central uses of the term relate to particular issues of race, gender, disability, ethnicity, sexual preference, culture and worldviews, and encompass both the language in which issues are discussed and the viewpoints that are expressed. ”[1] Examples can be African-American instead of Black or Negro; Native-American in place of Indian.

Also gender-neutral terms like police officer instead of policeman, or flight-attendant in place of steward/stewardess. The term political correctness is originated from the turn of the century; it was originally associated with Marxism and Marxist theory. There are critics who claim political correctness as totalitarian, also a limitation on free speech,[2] commonly known as “speech codes”[3]. There are several interpretations of the term in general. Nowadays to be politically correct is rather a pejorative phrase. As Richard Bernstein in 1990 stated in the New York Times:

The term ‘politically correct,’ with its suggestion of Stalinist orthodoxy is spoken more with irony and disapproval than with reverence. But across the country the term PC, as it is commonly abbreviated, is being heard more and more in debates over what should be taught at the universities. [4] We can see at this point, that his reference on political correctness has already reached the question of education and the influence on children, proving that it has become a significant issue from the 1980-90’s. Although ever since children’s literature came to existence, there have been debates over the “moral correctness” of books[5].

In the 1981 December issue of English Journal an article points out the important features that should be considered when editing books for educational use, targeting children. The title is “Proactive censorship: The new wave”: Today when writing a book for use in public schools, an author must be aware of: 1. How many black faces appear in proportion to the number of white faces; 2. The use of names such as Carlos and Juanita in proportion to those of Billy and Sue; 3. The use of pronouns that negate sex bias; 4. Putting anyone in a stereotypical role .

Paying obeisance to mandates of the consumer enlightenment moguls; 6. Excluding materials that imply the rape of our natural beauty; 7. Any vaguely humorous, satiric, and/or critical treatment of anyone’s religious preference; 8. Any allusion to stereotypes of ethnic and national origins; 9. Statements that may contain political bias; 10. Reference to drugs, tobacco, alcohol, non-nutritious foods, etc. [6] This extract from the English Journal could give an excellent basis for studying in what extent a book is politically correct.

Reading through different children’s picture books, I came to the conclusion that in Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever can we find the best examples of in what level PC or cultural correctness affected the different editions. However I would also like to give counter examples, for instance a British children’s picture dictionary, as well as to explore cases when political correctness is – in my point of view – exaggerated. To begin with, I would like to give an outline of what kind of categories were established during the research.

When someone turns over the pages of Best Word Book Ever for a few times, firstly what they might recognize are the different images that may occurred in the new edition, or have been replaced by something else, or finally – have been deleted from the new edition. This might catch the attention, why are these changes have taken place? Is it only a revision, a change in style, to be more up to date? Or is it more a conscious changing of images to be shown to children at early ages. I am going to illustrate these phenomena with pictures as well.

Furthermore I would also like to make more categories based on text and the words used in the dictionary, but firstly the focus is on visual representation. Different changes in the images can be categorized as well. Based on the personal exploration, I have come to list the following categories: 1. Gender roles (family roles, occupational stereotypes) 2. Representation of different ethnic groups 3. Religious references 4. Political reference To start with gender roles I would like to explain a little more what results the research come up with.

Firstly, the typical gender roles in the 1963 edition were the “old”, conservative stereotyping of sexes. Probably the most striking example for this can be found in the kitchen of the “rabbit house”. In the 1963 edition it is only mother rabbit that is standing at the stove in the kitchen, stating the stereotypical role of a woman, to do the housework. However, in the 1991 edition the image had been revised. It is not only the household equipment that has been renewed, but father rabbit appears with mother rabbit in the kitchen as well.

Moreover he is there to help in preparing for breakfast, so now the male member of the family is allowed to do housework as well. Not to mention the fruit juice he is making, which can be a reference on healthy lifestyle – an important teaching method as well. Also on the cover page there is another reference on gender roles. Again, rabbit family is working on the field. First of all, in the earlier edition it is only the male rabbit that is doing physical work. On the other hand, in the new edition the previous scarecrow has been replaced with the female rabbit, suggesting the possibility of a woman doing hard, physical work.

There are two more implications of the changing roles of sexes on the cover page. The first is the “cat family” walking the stroller. It is obviously the mother who is pulling the stroller in the 1963 edition; however the edition from the 1991’s shows the family without the mother, giving the father figure a somewhat new role. Last but not least, we have mention the police officer (policeman in the 1963 edition), who has been replaced by a female character. It is again a reference to stereotypical gender roles and their new, politically correct versions.

To continue with gender roles, another significant difference can be observed when we are reading through the book. At the “When you grow up” section there are several jobs illustrated with colorful pictures. However we can see that some of them are changed. Firstly the cowboy character from the previous edition has been replaced, as well as the milkman rabbit. The cowboy image is probably no longer accepted to that extent because of the decreasing interest in the Westward Movement (Native American references has been almost entirely replaced); or the sometimes pejorative interpretation of the term cowboy.

Therefore the possibly aggressive and violent[7] cowboy character has been replaced by a scientist and a gardener. These two professions are a lot more peaceful ones and also we can see that scientist character is a female bear, however the gardener is illustrated as a male cat. This is once more a great reference on gender neutralization of jobs. Likewise there is one more image that has been changed, and that is of the milkman. Since it is no longer a widespread profession, in the 1991 edition of the book instead of the milkman children can read about a taxi driver.

It is probably suggesting the urbanization of the US and the world. We can observe similar transformations from “old” professions to fashionable ones on other pages as well. In the 1963 version of Scarry’s book, we can see a “commuter” and a “train conductor”. However, in the new edition these two characters are completely removed. Replaced by a photographer and a reporter, now we have two stylish professions enjoying a growing interest among people. Not to mention the yet again noticeable change of stereotypically sexist professions.

The changing image of the teacher from one edition to the other shows again the growing tendency of gender neutralizing the professions. The next section that is worth exploring is the part on playing games. Two vivid pages can be seen here, full of children having fun on the playground. However if we have a closer look at the two editions we can observe five revolutionary changes between them. Firstly, some of the characters have changed their sexes. The cats, playing ring-around-a-rosy are predominantly female characters. However, in the later edition we can see that one of them has been transformed into a male character.

The same phenomenon can be seen on pigs, playing marbles; one of them is now a girl, indicating the possibility for a girl to play games that are originally mostly for boys. Same happens with the girl cat playing bouncing ball – it is no longer a female character. Also the characters playing tag have faced the same transformation. In the politically correct version it is no longer the boy chasing the girl, but at this time women have the same opportunity to “chase” men – that is a good reference on the changing attitude of women towards men. Last but not least, one more image in relation to gender-roles.

The pictures below give us another good example on changing gender roles. With adding a ribbon on both pictures, the characters’ sexes now are changed; being more politically correct again. To continue with the different categories of changes in the two edition, let us know have a look at the representation of different ethnic groups. There are not as many examples on this category as we could find on gender roles, though if we look at the book closely we can find some exciting illustrations to mention. To begin with the cover page again, the first to notice is that there are no real good examples we can mention.

However, when we have a second closer look, we can see a possible illustration of being not politically correct in the 1963 version. On the first side of the picture we can see the earlier edition, on which the policeman stops the driver. However we can observe the changing skin color of the driver. On the first picture it is much darker than on the other, indicating the possibility of being a member of an ethnic minority. Although these are just assumptions, on a personal point-of-view, it is worth mentioning. As I have already referred on the disappearance of Native American references, let us now have a look at on it.

There are different cases through the book where we can find the Native American characters are missing. At the alphabet section, at letter “I”, the Indian mouse holding the ice cream is simply deleted from the 1991 edition. As well as at the part about “Boats and ships” the canoe is transformed into a more “neutral” element, replacing the possible references on Native Americans from the 1963 version. Also interesting to mention that in the 1963 edition there is a “wild west” section, however it is not existent in the 1991 anymore.

Finally, there is also a significant change in relation to religion and politics. However there are only a few examples for these two categories altogether, it is important to mention them. At the section on holidays, we can find reference on Halloween, the Santa Claus, and a Christmas tree as well. Although in the 1991 edition a menorah is added as a reference on Chanukah. Being more politically correct? Then the question is obvious, why Kwanza is missing? There is a possibility of adding it soon too. As for political references, there is a really good example worth noticing.

We can find it at the professions section. In 1963 one of the most prominent jobs that are mentioned is a soldier. However, it is no longer politically correct to refer on war on any possible violent action. Therefore the image of the soldier in 1991 is replaced by a judge – the typical image of a democratic society. As I have already mentioned, after the visual examples, I would like to have a quick look at the linguistic differences as well. For this I would like to make a list of the words and expressions that have been changed over the years.

Firstly, the gender-neutralization is important to notice. Changes have occurred in words like: – mailman to letter carrier – policeman to police officer – fireman to firefighter – “beautiful screaming lady” to “cat in danger” – “jumping gentlemen” was deleted – “brave hero” to fire fighter – “mother” in lower case to “Mother” in capital letter – “handsome pilot” to pilot – “pretty stewardess” to flight attendant – baggage man to baggage handler And one more really good example is when talking about the male member of the family at the “Bear family”.

In the 1963 edition: “He comes promptly when he is called to breakfast”. However in the newer version: “He goes to the kitchen to eat his breakfast”. It is no longer an essential job for woman to prepare breakfast, but more individually the male member of the family takes his part in housework. Nevertheless I would like to comment on the 1990 version of Best First Book Ever from the same author. While doing the research, I have read through this somewhat same edition of this series and I have found that it is not that essential to change everything into a politically correct form in all children’s book.

In Best First Book Ever (1990) I have found that there was no gender neutralization of the professions, fireman remains fireman, “seven postmen” and fishermen are also mentioned. Moreover if looking through the book with special regards on exaggerated politically correct terms, we will find none. Images are titled such as “Miss Hones is big”, “Mr. Frumble is fat”, and “Big Hilda is huge”. However there are satirical references on politically correct terms that might occur in these contexts as well. [8] Last but not least, a few words about two British publications.

One of them is Things People Do (1997) and the other one is 1000 Words and Pictures (1993). The previous is an Usborne publication, the latter Ladybird Books Ltd – both are British. It is interesting in the two books that both have been published in the 1990’s, though both kept the “politically incorrect” usage of professions. “Postman”, “policeman”, “fireman”, “fisherman” all remained and all of them are illustrated as male characters. To conclude, no doubt about the significance of these phenomena, since they affect the youngest generation.

It is also interesting who makes these decisions about the changes? Is it really that important to teach children at the age of 3-4 about the politically correct terminology? This essay surely does not answer these questions. However it tried to illustrate the existent ongoing transformation of different terms and expressions in American children’s literature.

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